Dom Hemingway is very much a nothing film. It has a very mediocre plot, a main character too (purposefully) superficial to allow for the few sentimental moments to have any impact, a lack of focus, and a lackluster resolution. It’s not altogether dull or unenjoyable, but like the proverbial fast food burger, you’ll forget about it almost as soon as it’s over. It kills time, but beyond that it does very little for you.
The film stars a large (a reported 30 lbs. heavier) and unshaven Jude Law as the eponymous Don Hemingway. He’s just been released from prison, having served 12 years after a job gone wrong. He’s a career safe-cracker who thinks incredibly highly of himself. He carries himself with the type of confidence only seen in the movies. His first act upon being released from prison? Beat up the man who married his ex-wife, of course. I wager he never even considered that assault could land him back in the clink. No matter: The man he repeatedly punches is never seen from again. It was a scene to establish the character, not to be logical.
The reason that Dom spent a dozen years in prison was because he refused to rat out the man who organized the job, Mr. Fontaine (Demián Bichir). So, along with his best friend, Dickie (Richard E. Grant), Dom heads to meet with Mr. Fontaine in order to get his money. Things get wild, Mr. Fontaine is killed, the money is stolen, and now Dom is homeless, penniless, and still hoping to find the courage to seek out his now-grown-up daughter (Emilia Clarke) and fix up that relationship.
Meanwhile, the film moves around from plot thread to plot thread, often dropping or adding one at the drop of the hat. Mr. Fontaine comes and goes quickly, Dom’s daughter is only in maybe a half-dozen scenes, if that, and a brief digression into a safe-cracking job occurs near the end. There’s no weight to any of it, there’s very little reason for the progression other than “well, we had better go do something else now,” and there’s absolutely no reason to care about any of it.
The film sets up Dom as an obnoxious man in need of being put in his place — and if that were to happen, we might have an interesting character study. But the film’s few sentimental moments aren’t impactful in the least, in large part because there’s little weight behind them, no consequences to any of his actions, and very little of it actually matters — both to us and to the people in the film. These points feel hammered in and false, and with a lead this over-the-top, this doesn’t work.
You can approach a character like this in two ways. (1) You can make the film a morality tale, one in which the lead either does terrible things and “gets what’s coming to him,” or does terrible things, gets away with it, and the film says “well, that’s how the world works.” Or, you can present it without judgment at all, allowing the audience to judge the character based on his actions and nothing else. The film gives a half-hearted attempt at doing the first, but without fully committing it’s hard to take it particularly seriously.
Dom is also not the worst of people. The worst thing he does, during the course of the film, is beat up that guy in one of the first scenes. Oh, and he cusses. A lot. But most of the time he’s just a guy who struts down the street with confidence — cigarette either in hand or in mouth — or he sits around and says profane things. He wants to make amends with his daughter and he wants the money he is rightfully owed. He’s a jerk, but the film tries to portray him sympathetically, which puts us in an awkward position and further betrays its ambitions of saying something about the nature of people.
I should probably mention that Dom Hemingway is a black comedy … that also wants to function as a British gangster film as well as a character drama. It works about halfway for all three, but never as a whole and by not committing to any particular genre — or even two of the three — it doesn’t allow for any of them to be particularly successful. There are a few funny moments, about one good gangster scene, and the drama prevails throughout but is superficial at best.
It’s a shame that a good Jude Law performance is completely wasted here. Law owns this role, and if a sequel is ever produced I hope he returns. He’s so completely over-the-top here that you can watch the film easily for its entire running time simply because he’s so compelling in the role. Richard E. Grant is the only other constant throughout the film, and he’s far less showy than Law and is constantly over-matched.
Dom Hemingway is a disposable film that you’ll completely forget almost as soon as it’s over, as it lacks any sort of substance or deeper purpose. It isn’t good at managing its multiple genres, it’s too shallow and superficial to amount to much, and it adds or drops story threads and supporting characters without any thought or consideration. Jude Law kills it in the lead role, and it’s a shame that the filmmakers don’t use him better, or create a better movie with his performance. This isn’t a boring movie, but there’s little here to keep with you after it ends.